When a summer swim turned to tragedy.

Today this is a guest author spot.  It is written by my long term, long suffering workmate Tony and describes an incident he dealt with one day while not working with me.  I leave him alone for one day and see the trouble he gets into… Over to you Tony…

Thanks.  It was a sunny day.  I was working with Rachel, an experienced paramedic on an overtime shift.  Overtime always seems like a good idea when you book it, never seems quite so good when you actually come to start the shift, especially on a sunny day.  The day started pretty uneventfully – A steady stream of routine jobs, nothing too taxing.  Everyone was enjoying the sunny Saturday afternoon, the parks and pub beer gardens were all full of happy people.

We were driving back to base after a job when we were passed the next job.  It was a possible drowning at one of the local reservoirs.  We live about 50 miles from the nearest coast and on hot, sunny days we often see groups of children and teenagers climbing over the gates and fences into the reservoirs and dive and swim around.  The water authorities issue warnings every year about the dangers of swimming in reservoirs yet every year people ignore them and carry on swimming.  The problem with any body of water in the UK is that it tends to be cold.  Even on a run of hot weather it rarely warms the water below the surface layer; experts say the water below the surface doesn’t rise above a breathtaking 10˚C.  Reservoirs have the additional problem that there can be unexpected strong currents due to underwater valves and suction pumps.

We arrived at the reservoir to a crowd of bystanders all frantically waving us forward.  We had to climb over a fence to get to the edge of the water.  Two teenage lads were treading water a distance out from the edge.  They were shouting for help saying that they had hold of their mate but couldn’t get him out of the water.  They had been jumping from the edge of a building into the water on the opposite side of the reservoir all afternoon with no problems but on the last occasion their mate just never surfaced again – maybe he had banged his head on the paved floor and become unconscious, maybe the cold had made his muscles cramp, maybe the diving reflex kicked in – a reflex which all mammals have where the body responds to sudden immersion of the face in cold water by slowing the heart rate and diverting blood flow from the outer parts of the body, possibly leading to a faint.  Whatever the reason was, he never surfaced again.  Two of them tried to find him and drag him out while the rest called for help.

I shouted to the lads and asked if they could drag him to us.  They replied that they were struggling and couldn’t keep hold of him much longer.  The lad on the left was starting to have problems keeping his head above the water.

With some trepidation I took off my heavy work boots, emptied my pockets and waded out into the water.  It was cold! The deeper I waded the colder it got. The stone floor of the reservoir sloped steeply and the water quickly became deeper and colder.  The lads were still some distance out so I had to swim a short distance.  The lads by now had to let go of their friend to stop themselves from going under, one of them swam himself to the shore and I helped the lad who was struggling.  By now an ambulance response car and the police had arrived.  Stuart on the response car was taking his boots and tunic top off and one of the police officers was taking off his boots and body armour.  Rachel dished out blankets to the two friends and was preparing the resuscitation equipment on the shore.  After a quick conference we decided that since we knew pretty much where the lad had last been seen we would swim back in and have a look.  The fire service had mobilised the specialist water rescue unit but that would be ages before it arrived.

Back into the cold water we went.  The second time was no better; it still took my breath away.  We swam to where the lads had had to let go of their friend and looked around.  The police officer spotted him under water and we dived and managed to get a hold. We made our way slowly to the shore, Stuart joined us and we managed to get him back to the shore where we quickly dried off as Rachel started to dry him off and assess him.  He was in cardiac arrest: no pulse and not breathing.  We started to resuscitate and as we did his heart started to beat again.  He still wasn’t breathing for himself and was completely unresponsive.  We headed off to the local hospital after pre-alerting them that we were on our way, me driving (still damp and shivering) and Rachel in the back still ventilating the patient (using a machine to mechanically push air into his lungs and then allow the lungs to breathe out relying on the ribs and chest wall muscles to relax and force the air out).

He was kept alive for a few days on Intensive care but sadly was only alive because of the drugs and machines, the decision was made to turn off the machines and allow him to die.  I like to think that at least his family had time to see him before the machine was turned off and hope they got some slight comfort from that to help them through the grief.

That’s it really, all I’ve got to say.

Thanks for that Tony.  Just one point I’d like to add:  Tony and Stuart got a bollocking from the service for the risk to their lives they took that day, apparently there are rules somewhere which forbid us from doing stuff like that. However, they and the police officer got a very well deserved commendation from the Royal Humane Society for their bravery that day!

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